Friday, July 26, 2019

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

    Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.   
-Romans 13:8-10 (NIV)

I’ve been having flashbacks to my childhood this week seeing the new trailer for the Mr. Rogers movie, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A lot of people my age are saying they were Mr. Rogers fans when they were kids. Not to get competitive (Mr. Rogers probably wouldn’t like that), but when Mr. Rogers would come onscreen, singing his signature song, from doing whatever Mr. Rogers did when he wasn’t on TV,  and put on his cardigan — well, I would put on a cardigan too. (My mom made me stop in high school…)
     Fan? You bet I was. 
     It’s sort of mystifying to some why Mr. Rogers, who was sort of the epitome of uncool, was such a draw to kids. There was no animation on the show, no Bugs Bunny or Super Friends or dinosaurs or giant robots. Just Mr. Rogers, and his friends, and the puppets in The Land of Make-Believe. It’s not really a mystery, though. Mr. Rogers had a gentle voice, and a nice smile, and he seemed genuinely glad to “see” us every day. His “neighborhood” was a place where you were accepted and appreciated. He made it clear that he meant it when he asked, “Won't you be my neighbor?” and said that he wanted a neighbor “just like you.” 
     I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but Fred Rogers, an ordained minister, built his TV show around Jesus’ insistence that Leviticus 19:18 — Love your neighbor as yourself — was one of the greatest commands. That’s why his show was about a neighborhood. That’s why he wanted us to be his neighbor.
     That’s not to say life was perfect in his neighborhood. In the very first episode, during the Vietnam War, King Friday of The Land of Make-Believe established a border guard to keep “unauthorized” visitors from his palace. In a time when swimming pool integration was an issue, he invited Officer Clemmons (the first black recurring character on a children’s TV show), to take a break from walking his beat to join him in soaking his feet in a kiddie pool. When they were finished, Mr. Rogers bent down and dried Officer Clemmons’ feet with a towel.
     And in 1968, after the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, Daniel Striped Tiger asked, “What does assassination mean?” Because loving your neighbor means not hiding hard things from them. It means admitting that even the most loving of neighborhoods is located in a world that sometimes is anything but loving, and so loving our neighbors as we love ourselves doesn’t always seem to be the smartest, most efficient, most advantageous course of action.
     Loving our neighbors doesn’t mean trying to get them to pretend that their problems and struggles aren’t real. It’s listening while they ask their hard questions. It’s giving them space to feel what they’re feeling, and letting them know that you accept them and have compassion for them.
     “To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now,” Fred Rogers once said. I think he’s right, because that’s how God has loved us. He loved us when our sins still needed atoning. Before faith, before repentance, before baptism, before discipleship, there’s God’s love. Before anything we did to make ourselves the least bit lovable is his great love for us. Great enough to send his Son into the world. So this is how we are to love one another: before we should, before justice demands it, before popular opinion makes it safe, before we can be sure that those we love won’t take advantage of our love for their own purposes.
     Love puts us on the line in the same way that it put Jesus on the cross. Love makes us vulnerable in the same way it made God vulnerable.
     We’ve always had a hard time believing that God’s plan for saving the world hinges on love. We think love is important, sure, but history tells us that it’s rare for human beings to see it as anything but a little added bonus. We throw in a little persuasion. Manipulation. Control. Rule-following. Guilt. Even some condemnation now and then. “Oh, sure, we love people. But we can’t let them think we approve of everything they do.” Love, after all, needs a little help. Left alone, love changes nothing. It’s unicorns and rainbows and fluffy bunnies. 
     Love is soft. It isn’t practical. It’s great when it’s safe, like in a family or marriage or friendship or church. It’s no way to live in the real world. 
     If you love the wrong people, you might even get taken advantage of. 
     Maybe even killed.  
     A couple of weeks ago, Abubakar Abdullahi was given the International Religious Freedom Award from the U.S. Department of State. Last yeah, the 83-year-old sheltered a group of 262 Christians from Fulani Herdsmen who had entered his village in Nigeria. The armed attackers caused chaos in the village, and Abdullahi opened the door of his house and the building attached to it as shelter for the Christians. He told the refugees to lay down on the ground to avoid being shot and locked the doors. Then he stood guard outside the buildings, even going so far as to lay down in front of the attackers and plead with them in the name of God to leave his guests alone. Eventually, the attackers moved on and Abdullahi and his “guests” shared a meal together.
     Oh. The building attached to his home? That’s a mosque. Abubakar Abdullahi is the Imam in his village.
     That’s funny; if I didn’t know better I’d swear he learned to love from Jesus. 
     Don’t tell Abubakar Abdullahi that love isn’t for the gritty, real, scary moments of life. Don’t tell Jesus. 
     Don’t believe for a moment that love isn’t practical, that it doesn’t speak to the real problems of our world, that it accomplishes nothing. We think that, you see, because we talk about love much more than we do it. And it’s true: talking about love doesn’t accomplish much. 
     If we actually love, though, in the way Jesus loved, we just might find that love can change everything. 
     In any case, it’s what we’re called to. It’s our mandate. You can’t control whether one person loves you or not. But you can choose to love your neighbor as yourself: To wash their feet, to speak to their fears, to let them put a name to their feelings and give them a sympathetic ear. 
     To say to those who would hurt them that they’ll have to go through you first.

     That’s the Mr. Rogers way. But he just stole it from Jesus.

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